Opinel knives have a long history- the French manufacturer celebrated their 130th birthday in 2020. Their stainless steel knives are reasonably priced, reliable, sharp and extremely lightweight. Almost ideal for backpacking purposes.
Joseph Opinel began making knives in his father’s workshop in 1890. A range of knives, from No.1 and increasing in size to No.12, the largest at the time, were introduced. Known as peasants knives, or working mens tools, they had just four components. A blade, haft (handle) and fixed ferrule, through which a rivet passed. The smallest of Opinel knives still have these four components. In 1955 Marcel Opinel developed and introduced a locking device on the larger knives. This ‘Virobloc’ rotating ferrule was further developed in the 1990’s so that a knife blade could be locked closed as well as open. The folding knives from No.6 up have this fifth component. It is possible that the inclusion or exclusion of this locking feature may determine suitability for carrying an Opinel in the UK. Lockable or fixed blade knives are illegal to carry ‘without provable good reason’.
While Opinel No.8 is a best seller for the company, the smaller knives in the range- No.2 to No.6, are shown here. Any one of these would make a great and affordable addition to a lightweight backpacking gear list. Three Points of the Compass used to carry a No.8 with carbon (carbone) blade when car camping with a young family but not only did knife law change, precluding that longer blade, but a high carbon steel proved unsuitable for camping use. With the best will in the world, attempts to protect the blade from corrosion proved impossible to maintain and the blade suffered badly. It is for this reason that I will never use a carbon steel blade Opinel on trail again and feel that my stainless steel blade variants, shown here, are a far more practical option.
Five knife sizes are shown here. No. 2, the smallest, is tiny and has to be gripped by just two fingers and a thumb. However the blade on this five gram knife is still a couple of millimetres longer than that found on the backpackers favourite- the 21g Victorinox Classic.
-the fishtail on each knife handle exaggerates this dimension
|Depth||Blade length||Blade thickness||Weight|
The locking Virobloc on the largest knife shown here, the No.6, can be easily removed (and replaced) if necessary. Coupled with the blade length, this then makes the No.6 a UK legal knife. It is worth noting that prior to the introduction of the Virobloc in 1955, all Opinels, of any size, lacked a locking device.
Available variants of Opinel knives include those with a folding corkscrew, or a drive bit in the handle, a ‘trekking’ version with a short leather thong threaded through the handle, fitted keyrings and other features. You can find limited special runs, blade tattoos and uncommon handle materials. The walnut, olive and oak handled versions are especially handsome to my mind but are not available in all sizes. The standard wooden handle is beech, shown here. The flared fishtail design of the handles isn’t fantastically ergonomic, nor is it particularly uncomfortable, it just is. If desired this can be sanded down to a different shape then revarnished. The traditional knives shown here perform just as well as the more expensive or limited quantity runs.The basic beech folder is all that is really required for backpacking.
Blade steel is high quality 12C27M stainless steel. This is from Sandvik, who inform us that the steel is a “knife steel grade with good wear resistance and good corrosion resistance, well suited for the manufacture of kitchen tools” developed for the highest possible edge performance while still having good corrosion resistance. It has a hardness range of 53-59 HRC. Knives are usually sharp when purchased, wickedly sharp in fact, but can be sharpened pretty easily if necessary. Due to the knives’ simplicity and the sheer number produced, prices are as keen as the blade edge.
The blade shape is not found on many competitor knives. It is a full flat grind, clip point, with a lot of belly toward the end. Note the logo found on the blade- this is the main couronnée or ‘crowned hand’ and was introduced onto all Opinel knives from 1909. The blessing hand is that of Saint John the Baptist, taken from the coat of arms of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, the nearest town in Albiez-le-Vieux, birthplace of the Opinel family. The crown was added, supposedly, as a reminder that Savoie was a duchy. Savoie is the headquarters of the family owned Opinel company and the regions name also appears on the handle of each knife. The word INOX also appears on stainless steel bladed knives, from “INOXidable”, meaning ‘non-oxidizable’.
With such a simple design and thin blades, all of these knives are extremely lightweight. The blade folds into the beech handle on these knives. If the handles get saturated the wood can swell despite being varnished. This can make blades tough to open but as soon as they dry out, everything frees up again. Alternatively, use the coup de savoyard to partially open (tapping the beak), but this is far easier with the larger knives. On trail my knife normally sits in my food bag so it isn’t getting soaked, so swelling of wood and blade jamming isn’t an issue. Some owners strip their knife down, remove the varnish and soak the handle in paraffin wax, before reassembling, which is quite a bit of work but does cure the problem. If indeed it is a problem.
The blades have a good sized nail nick and it takes two hands to open a knife. Blades can be stiff when new but quickly free off. Opinels from No.6 up have the locking Virobloc rotating ferrule, on smaller knives it is friction that holds blades open and there is no ‘floppiness’.
Each backpacker may prefer a particular size of knife and blade length from those shown here. You may even prefer something larger. Of the five knives looked at here Three Points of the Compass thinks both No.3 and No.4 hit the sweet spot between size, weight and practicality in use. Note that I never mentioned cost, as all of these knives are very reasonably priced.
While some knife manufacturers founded many years ago have left their early designs far behind and constantly add new styles and types of knives to their portfolio, the roots of Opinel are very apparent in the present day manufacture of their traditional line. If it works, don’t fix it.
There is another interesting Opinel variant not covered here, that may particularly suit younger hikers or those who want a slightly different blade shape. We will review that in another post. Three Points of the Compass has looked at quite a few knives and multi-tools that may, or may not, be suitable for backpacking, day treks or Every Day Carry. Links to these can be found here.